On the Move

Local moviemakers take their film ‘Manna From Heaven’ on the road. This weekend, it opens in Buffalo

News Staff Writer

At one poignant moment – while watching “Manna From Heaven” – Gabrielle B. Burton beams, her smile almost cutting a swath of light through the darkened theater. More than once, she laughs at her own jokes.
“Oh, really?” the screenwriter responds later, when told of her actions. “I guess I don’t realize what I’m doing,” Burton said. “I’m always nervous, I feel, waiting to see what the audience is going to do.”

January in Buffalo, and the “Manna” machine is at it again, sucking the Burton family into its soul for another round of film aerobics. With the Buffalo run kicking off Friday at area theaters, the Burton family – Gabrielle B., husband Roger and their five daughters – are mounting a whistle-stop promotion tour. That’s why husband and wife are sitting in the back row of the Dipson Amherst theater on this weekday morning watching their film – he estimates it’s his 300th time; she said it’s more like 600. They will begin taking questions from moviegoers just as the last Buffalo-based credit disappears, just as they did during the eight-week run in Kansas City, Mo., and for six weeks in Branson, Mo., before that. It’s called word-of-mouth advertising, and Burton family members have each signed on for a 365-day crash course that will take them around the country.

“What we did was Rotary Club breakfasts at 7 a.m. and grocery store tables, where we’d hand out things, and people were asking us where the bread was,” Burton said, standing against the popcorn machine in the Dipson Amherst lobby. “At first everyone was humiliated, selling T-shirts in theater lobbies. We’d set up a table and slowly move away from it. By the second weekend, we were slapping that table up and selling T-shirts. You do what you have to do.”

That’s how it is with independent movies, everything becomes a hurdle. Even “Big Fat Greek Wedding” – that romantic bombshell based on the one-woman show written by and starring “Second City” alumna Nia Vardalos – had a million-dollar distribution budget.

The Burtons, meanwhile, managed to make “Manna” with $4 million. As for distribution, the Burtons believed the film would be snatched up by one of the 20 companies that initially showed interest.

“We never thought we’d be doing this part,” Burton said. “We thought it would be picked up right away. The whole independent market changed so much after the writers’ strike, and 9-11 and the stock market crashing. We had a lot of offers, but it would have opened and closed in one weekend, and then they would have had the rights for seven years. They could have sold cable and everything else, so my daughters determined that they would take a year and do this and we basically started in August.”

Five Sisters Productions not to be confused with any religious order – is the corporate arm of the Burton family that has specialized in making films. Mother Burton wrote the script as a student at the American Film Institute. Father Burton retired from teaching developmental psychology at the University at Buffalo to help produce and promote the film. The sisters – Gabrielle C., Charity, Jennifer, Maria and Ursula – have a range of experience in the arts and moviemaking. The team strategy is to piggyback off the success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another indie film that spins blue-collar ethnic humor.

“It’s somewhat like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ in that they targeted Greek neighborhoods and tried to do a word-of-mouth, but they had a million dollars (for distribution) and (producers) Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson,” Burton pointed out. “We don’t have any of those things and we’re just trying to target anybody.”

Here’s the way it works: For starters, the film is booked at a given theater for one week, from Friday to the following Thursday. The weekend numbers are then counted to determine whether one more week will be booked. As long as the people come, the movie runs. The first weekend, according to Burton, is critical.

The Burtons are banking that stars Cloris Leachmann, Shirley Jones, Louise Fletcher, Shelley Duvall, Jill Eikenberry and Buffalo native Wendie Malick – not to mention Frank Gorshin – will fuel a draw that will last.

The movie begins with clouds of cash falling on a postwar Buffalo neighborhood, spurring family members to first scoop and then divide. Years pass, money is spent and the windfall becomes a memory. Along the way, the audience is treated to Buffalo scenes galore, some corny humor and many cameo appearances by local celebs including Mayor Masiello, Don Postles and former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker, as well as music performed by Sal Andolina and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

“We are the most written-about unknown people in the world,” Burton said. “I think we have six volumes of news articles. People are so captured by the notion of family, as we are amazed at each step along the way.

“I just couldn’t believe the whole thing happened, filming at Shea’s, at Kleinhans, at Blessed Trinity Church. My daughter was married in Blessed Trinity. We filmed in the mayor’s office. We just had so many lucky breaks and generous offerings.”

Husband Roger Burton is perhaps the silent force behind the project. The former professor is learning a lot about filmmaking and more about distribution than he ever wanted. At one point in his life, Roger thought he was done with movies. At Harvard University working on his doctorate, one project required viewing hundreds of films for three weeks at 14 hours each day.

“I was looking for certain scenes,” Roger Burton recalled. “I really had had it with watching movies. For a long time, I really didn’t go to movies much.”

While Roger Burton still writes his scholarly papers, he admits that lately nothing has been published. Like the other family members, he simply does not have time.

“We all talk about being sucked into the “Manna’ machine,” Gabrielle B. Burton said. “We’re trying to pace each other, like we know we have to exercise and eat properly because it is a long haul and you do get run down. It’s just stress, stress, stress all the time. Some of it is fun. Some is exciting.”

Like sitting in Kleinhans and having a symphony orchestra perform just for them. Like sitting in the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters in Washington, D.C., to watch the film with members of Congress.

“We never dreamed last year that we would be showing it for Congress,” Gabrielle B. Burton said. “But Jack Valenti hosted a reception. We walked into a room and there was Jack Valenti. He was really short and he had big tall cowboy boots on, and it was just a kick.”

Or how about getting a 20-minute phone conversation with the original indie guru, Harvey Weinstein?

“Did Harvey do anything for us? No, but he was very complimentary about the movie,” recalled Gabrielle B. Burton. “He has no time, he said. He is booked back-to-back through next year. Gabrielle, my daughter, told him: “I think this movie has a chance at being very successful.’ And Harvey said: “I’m not interested in money now. I need time. I just have no time.’ ”

The Burtons, for now, will be spending much of their time in Buffalo, their weekends committed to movie theaters and film talk. This Friday and for the remainder of the Buffalo run, the “Manna’ train will be refueling – a respite for the family that travels so much to promote their film.

“It can be draining,” Gabrielle B. Burton said. “You’re sleeping in strange places. We don’t have money for hotels, and you’re eating popcorn and Dr. Pepper. There’s never time for meals.

“Sometimes I think if I hadn’t written “fade in,’ none of this would have happened,” she added. “It all begins with the writer, and that’s humbling.”

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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